Hector Berlioz
Thursday, 25 July 2024 00:57

The Music of Imperialism: Berlioz's The Trojans

Published in Music

Haydn Greenway analyses the hidden meanings of Berlioz's great opera,'The Trojans'.

Classical music can arouse extreme emotional responses. It also requires an intellectual engagement in order to decipher the language hidden within the complexity of sonic patterns. This can require repeated listenings, say, of a Beethoven symphony, to fully understand the music and its overall architecture. This runs counter to the capitalist ideal of commercial mainstream pop culture where instant appeal results in instant profit – a mere “tickling of the ear”, to quote the great 19th century French Romantic composer, Berlioz (1803 – 1869). Also, there is, often, a numbing of the intellect - the sole object being to make money, resulting in a plunge to the lowest common denominator of musical banality. Note, I use the term “mainstream pop”: I would not dismiss the wild electric genius of Jimi Hendrix as mere pop commercialism.

Music can, alone, express an entire spectrum of human emotions, transcending vocalized language. It takes a true genius like Wagner or Verdi to successfully fuse poetry, music and theatre to create that often bizarre art form, opera. Even with opera, the orchestra on its own can become the eloquent, unsung poet. The best operas, musically, need no elaborate staging, and can come off, quite well, in a concert performance.

As a student, the young Berlioz was overwhelmed when he first heard the Beethoven symphonies performed at the Paris Conservatoire.Until then, he had only heard operatic and choral music. He realised that the vagueness of expression inherent in non-vocalized instrumental music was a source of power. In 1832 he wrote : 'One cannot miss the poetic thought….it is music which gives way to itself, needing no words to make its expression specific, its language then becomes quite indefinite thanks to which it acquires still more power over beings endowed with imagination…'

Under the spell of Beethoven, Berlioz composed two purely instrumental symphonies, the extreme romantic Symphonie Fantastique and the Byronic Harold in Italy – a sort of viola concerto. His third symphony, however, was the monumental Shakespearian 'Romeo et Juliette', a choral symphony. At the core of this symphony is the sublime Love Scene. This is purely instrumental, the sublimity of their love being beyond words.

However, Berlioz did compose three operas, and his magnum opus, the culmination of his musical career, was the epic music drama The Trojans. This is a vast five act opera based on books I, II and IV of Virgil’s Aeneid, with strong imperialist overtones. The role of the orchestra in this piece is as important as the soloists and chorus. Indeed, the orchestra sometimes becomes the eloquent unsung poet. The driving theme of this masterpiece is the sacking of Troy by the Greeks, and the Trojan hero Aeneas’s divine mission to recreate Trojans as the Roman master race, rulers the world.

This operatic epic has many layers of meaning and interpretation. On a superficial level we have the story of the capture of Troy with the deception of the Wooden Horse, democratically voted into the city of Troy. We have the ironic tragedy of Cassandra, cursed with the gift of prophecy, whom no one will believe, although she warns the Trojans of the impending apocalypse to be unleashed from the belly of the Wooden Horse. And we have the love story of Dido and Aeneas, her betrayal by Aeneas, and her tragic suicide.

At a deeper level we have the imperialist ambitions of the Trojan, Aeneas, for the conquered Italians to rule the world as the newly formed master race, the Romans. Deeper still is the irony involved in using the music of the suicidal decision to bring in the Wooden Horse – the Trojan March, sacred hymn of the Trojans- as the new national anthem of the Romans. Is not the Trojan Horse a powerful archetype of invasion by deception?